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Healani Sonoda-Pale is a Native Hawaiian activist, organizer, and a ku kia’i mauna or mountain protector. She was one of more than a hundred faculty members and students who squeezed into a crowded room at the University of Hawaii’s main campus on Friday to testify before the Board of Regents.

The university controls the master lease for the summit of Mauna Kea.

“I feel like I’ve been at this meeting many times already,” Sonoda-Pale said.

Although the board met to establish a committee to study the university’s management of the summit, Hawaiians and allies who work at the university were there to give voice to the most divisive event since the 1893 U.S. backed overthrow. “We come to these meetings and speak on so many issues, year in and year out,” Sonoda-Pale said. “But they don’t hear.”

Healani Sonoda-Pale is a Native Hawaiian activist, organizer, and a ku kia’i mauna or mountain protector. (Photo by Anne Keala Kelly)

Healani Sonoda-Pale is a Native Hawaiian activist, organizer, and a ku kia’i mauna or mountain protector. (Photo by Anne Keala Kelly)

A political and cultural paradox for Hawaiians, the University of Hawaii is a contested space geographically and ideologically. The University of Hawaii system is made up of three universities and seven community colleges. And like most public institutions, every campus sits on so-called ceded lands, which are comprised of the crown and government lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Often referred to as C & G lands by Hawaiians, it adds up to more than a third of the archipelago. Mauna Kea is also part of those lands.

Hawaiians have made inroads at the university during the past 40 years, despite often being ignored by those in power.

Many of today’s Native leaders and organizers, including those standing for Mauna Kea, were educated or influenced by professors Haunani-Kay Trask, Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa, and others who have taught at the Center for Hawaiian Studies. Those Hawaiians were part of a cultural renaissance and political shift that began in the late 1970s with the struggle to stop the U.S. Navy’s bombing of Kahoolawe. At that time, Hawaiians were inspired by Wounded Knee, Alcatraz, the Civil Rights Movement, and decolonization efforts in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean.

But Kahoolawe was the beginning of a sovereignty movement with roots that go back to the overthrow, an event that is now referenced daily, as analogies are being drawn between that and the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Sonoda-Pale, who studied at the center 25 years ago, is like many who see the historical lineage that has impacted generations of Hawaiians. “The state and the TMT Corp are colonizers in the most basic sense,” she said. “The Americans have been doing this to us since they overthrew the queen. They will commit total destruction of whatever we have left for their own sense of power and supremacy.”

As one of the organizers of Ka Lāhui Political Action Committee, Sonoda-Pale, who provides a live Facebook feed of every public meeting she attends, tracks state legislation that impacts Native Hawaiians. The committee then issues an annual legislative report card detailing which politicians support and oppose Native issues. Since 2015, they have rallied Hawaiians to speak out against several legislative attempts to give the university and the telescope project broader power over Mauna Kea. Sonoda-Pale, who is a wife and mother of two teenage boys, is an advisor at the university’s Student Leadership and Development program. We met in her office before her Board of Regents testimony.

“My activism began when I was an undergraduate here. My sister and I took a Geography of Hawaii class. It was taught by a haole (white) professor who was telling lies about our people. I thought I was being helpful when I corrected him,” she said. “But he said crazy things, like, we made our lei niho palaoa out of pubic hair.” Those lei, only worn by ali‘i (royalty)were made with long, thickly bound strands of braided human hair, that held a pendant carved from whale bone.

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“We were polite,” she said, “but to him we were just disruptive, so he called security. When we refused to leave, they dragged us out. And my sister was 8 months pregnant at the time, so imagine that.”

At the Board of Regents meeting on August 2. (Photo by Anne Keala Kelly)

At the Board of Regents meeting on August 2. (Photo by Anne Keala Kelly)

Wao Akua

As board members filed into the room, Sonoda-Pale was busy saying aloha to friends and colleagues, handing out copies of her testimony, entitled “No Jurisdiction ma Wao Akua.” It means that no one has jurisdiction over Mauna Kea because it is the realm of the gods. But there is a legal aspect to that statement, too, a challenge to U.S. jurisdiction. When it was her turn to speak, she said, “The UH doesn’t have jurisdiction on Mauna Kea. That’s crown and government land. Kanaka Moali (Native Hawaiians) never relinquished our rights and sovereignty over the mauna….”

Throughout the testimonies, words such as deplorable, racially insensitive, collusion and cultural violence were repeated many times. So were comparisons between the latest telescope project and the overthrow.

Kahele Dukelow, a Hawaiian Studies alumnus and professor at UH Maui College, is one of the Mauna Kea protectors teaching classes at the Pu‘u Huluhulu encampment.

“Many of my kumu (teachers) are in this room. What you are seeing with Mauna Kea is a result of decades of work, ” she told the board, “In 1893, businessmen overthrew our queen, going against what the Kanaka Maoli wanted. You can either stand with the settler businessmen now, or with Kanaka Maoli.” Dukelow finished her testimony with a quote from Queen Lili‘uokalani: “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

More than a telescope

At the end of a week that included Hawai‘i State Governor Ige announcing a two-year extension on the TMT Corp’s construction permit, a Thursday counter-demonstration across from TMT supporters in front of the state capitol, and the regents meeting, Sonoda-Pale was on a flight to Hilo, on Hawai‘i Island (Big Island). A tropical storm had thinned the typical thousand or more Hawaiians standing guard full-time at Pu‘u Huluhulu down to 300. And she was on her way there to spend the night. Like many, she was worried that the governor might use the storm as an excuse to raid the camp.

Though she admitted to being tired, Sonoda-Pale is being fueled by an energy that is coming from someplace deep.

“There is an awakening happening among our people,” she said. “This has become about much more than a telescope. The TMT epitomizes the rape and desecration of our people, our nation, and our land. They want to build that thing in the wao akua because they stand for the total elimination and erasure of Hawaiians. We keep hearing [Governor] Ige, the university, and the TMT Corp saying they want to find a way forward, a middle ground. They are trying to find a weak link. But this is it for us. We have to protect Mauna Kea from them. There is no middle ground. There is no weak link.”

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Anne Keala Kelly is a filmmaker, journalist and writer. Her articles and op-eds have appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, The Nation, Honolulu Weekly, Honolulu Civil Beat, Hana Hou! Magazine, Big Island Journal, and Indian Country Today. Her broadcast journalism has aired on Free Speech Radio News, Independent Native News, Al Jazeera English, The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Democracy Now!, The Environment Report, and more. And her film, "Noho Hewa: The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai'i" has received international film festival awards. (